The Crab Raider

[This is an essay I spent an inordinate amount of time working on for Oregon Quarterly‘s Northwest Perspectives essay contest. It didn’t win me fortune and fame, but it did land among the top ten finalists. That, I think, earns it a place somewhere on the internet. Like here.]

The Crab Raider: How a rookie fisherwoman learned her place on the food chain.

I hear the boat engine slow as we approach the floating buoys, my cue to lean over the rail and point the long, hook-ended stick toward the water. As I prepare to strike, I make a silent request for crab. The last two pots we ran came up empty; nothing but a few abandoned shells stacked like poker chips in the corner. In the 50 or so pots we already pulled today, we’d found at least a half-dozen purple-backed Dungeness each. That can only mean one thing: Something is robbing us of our catch. Each crab lost is money lost, but in a place as vast as the Pacific, there’s little chance of finding the culprit, be it human or animal.
I shake my head vigorously. This is not the time to lose focus; our pot is close. As soon as it drifts in reach, I snag the first buoy with the hook, grabbing the rope attached to it with one hand while the other tosses the buoy stick to Hannah, who’s right at position on the other side of the landing box. I yank the rope into the giant pulley, also known as the block, dangling from the hydraulic arm in front of me. Forty fathoms below us, the crab pot jerks away from the sea floor as the block begins to fly through the rope. Now I wait, one neoprene-sheathed hand gripping the controls, intently watching the diamond spray of water coming off the line. Hannah returns to filling bait jars.
It’s a beautiful, cloudless day. As the block does its work, a gentle swell rocks the boat from side to side. At its worst, Dungeness crab fishing off the Oregon coast in winter is a grueling, monotonous gamble. Often, commercial fishing boats don’t catch enough – or the price of live crab isn’t high enough – to make the whole dangerous endeavor worthwhile. But we go out anyway, perfecting the focused and purposeful dance of tossing crab, coiling rope, swinging pots, and coming home exhausted, seasick, ready to call it quits, mostly for the joy that is in it. Hannah and I, probably the only two women deckhands working the Dungeness crab fishery this season and certainly the youngest, move in synchrony. The one on block leads; the other follows her cues. Captain Dave is our fierce but fearless choreographer, manning the wheel and barking instructions from inside the cabin of his 36-foot boat, the Glass Slipper. We trust him with our lives and he trusts us with his livelihood – both the powerful equipment on board and the high-dollar crustaceans that we pile into the tank, weather permitting.
The rope rising out of the water is red now, signaling that our pot is close. I keep one hand on the controls – now, it’s all about timing. Seconds later, I catch the first glimpse of the pot, ten feet underwater and moving toward us like a soul heaven-bent. It breaches the surface with the sound of a wave crashing on shore, but does not lose speed until I slam the lever closed. The crab pot swings to a stop just above our heads off the side of the boat, 150 pounds of iron and knitted wire gushing sea water.
Now that it’s up there, I can see that this pot is certainly not empty like the last few. In fact, it’s about half full of a slimy, pink and orange substance. It looks like rumpled skin in a transparent bag, only it’s moving. Hannah and I both scream at once.
“OCT-TO-PUSSS!” We’ve caught the pot-raider red-handed, and we have no idea what to do next. An awkward, flabbergasted moment passes before Captain Dave’s voice, calm as ever, crackles over the loudspeaker.
“Land the goddamn pot.” Right. Muscle memory takes over; we grab the pot on either side and haul it toward us as I milk a little slack rope out of the block. It settles down on the landing box with a thump. Fumbling with the latches, we pop open the lid. The octopus is already shrinking down into the wire netting, attempting to send its glistening, suction-cupped body right through the mesh. Hannah is turbulent with excitement, but I can only stare goggle-eyed. Between the seasickness patch transmitting dope-like chemicals into my jugular and the hypnotic trance of our fast-paced work, interruptions normally barely register with either of us. We are running pots, and we are only running pots, and we will do it until we drop from exhaustion or Captain Dave turns the boat toward harbor. But with its bulbous head and graceful tentacles, orange on the back side and a deep, fleshy pink underneath, this animal has seized our attention. In any context it would seem alien, but at this moment, it is simply unfathomable.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Dave pulling on his orange rain gear to come out on deck. I emerge from my stupor.
“Grab it!” he hollers. “It’s trying to get away!” I am not sure if I believe him – how could this huge creature just slide out of the bottom of the pot like some sort of sea Houdini? – but I reach down for it anyway, grabbing at the slippery flesh somewhat hopelessly. Hannah, still spewing expletives, runs for a bucket, and all together, we wrestle the octopus out of its never-ending crab buffet. Once it’s in the bucket, Dave explains that an octopus has no skeleton, so it can slip through any opening that will fit its sharp beak. The one-inch gaps in the wire netting pose it no challenge.
As if to prove its escape artistry, one suction-cupped octopus tentacle is already feeling around the rim of the bucket. I am not able to resist any longer. I pull off one glove and crouch on deck. Up close, the octopus’ skin looks a little iridescent, almost coppery. He shrinks back slightly at my touch, then relaxes. His head and the tops of his arms are smooth at first but reveal small bumps, as if he’s caught a chill out here in the open air. I move a finger to one of his many suction cups. It sticks to me slightly. Running the back of my hand along his tentacle is like receiving a dozen small kisses from a sticky-faced child.
“What do we do with him?” I ask after a moment. Throwing him back is obviously out of the question; he’ll only find the next pot in the string and continue his freeloading ways.
“Keep him,” Dave responds. “We’ll sell him to the aquarium. They pay by the pound. Good money.” Hannah and I don’t say anything. We’re accustomed to the eat-or-be-eaten logic of the fishing industry; in this line of work, you learn to look at the process of trapping and hauling in hundreds of creatures as harvest, not murder. One fewer common Pacific octopus won’t make a difference, I tell myself, and Captain Dave would know. He has studied this place, mysterious and foreign to us, for longer than we’ve been alive. He understands that the oceans are bountiful, but not limitless, and that upsetting the balance below the waves would destroy the industry that hundreds of fishermen like himself barely cling to as it is. If he has deemed this octopus to be a menace, who are we to ask questions?
My conscience temporarily at ease, I assist in pouring the octopus into a plastic bag. We insert a deck hose to provide him with fresh water, and secure it with a zip tie. We put the bag back in the bucket and stash it in a corner of the deck, confident that the raider will threaten our pots no more. Without pause, we return to work, hoping to finish this string of pots before the sun goes down. Once again, the sameness of those motions – hook the pot, pull it up, land it, remove the crab, put in new bait, dump it off the side – blends the hours together. At the end of the day, the whole incident has been forgotten. We dock the boat and go home without even peeking in the bucket.

The next morning, I arrive early to the Glass Slipper. Captain Dave, as usual, is already there, tinkering with the engine below the cabin floor. It’s our fourth straight day of crabbing in a streak of good weather, and I’m on autopilot as I ready the boat for another day at sea. It isn’t until Hannah arrives for work that I remember the passenger we’d brought on board the day before.
I abandon the boxes of bait I’d been stacking, find the octopus bucket and peer in. But like our raided pots, it’s empty. The bag hangs like a ghost in the water, the hose flowing uselessly out onto the deck. It doesn’t make sense – Dave hadn’t contacted any octopus buyers by the time we’d pulled into harbor the night before, and I doubted that he’d had a sudden craving for calamari. I shout down to him.
“Hey, where’s our octopus?”
“Gone,” he says without turning around.
“What?” we both yell back.
“He left,” he says, and from the evidence before me, I know he’s right. We’d obviously underestimated our prisoner and overestimated the power of plastic zip ties. I look at Hannah, knowing that she’s feeling the same unspoken surge of satisfaction.
The other fishing boats are pulling out from their moorings; Captain Dave has finished his repairs and is anxious to get out to sea. There’s always more crab to catch. As we chug out into open water, I take my usual seat on the back hatch of the boat, watching the wake spread out behind us like a highway that vanishes into the horizon. It’s my time to summon up the energy for the work ahead, to process the upheaval of my privileged existence that this job has wrought, and to stow away memories that I know will be with me long after my body is unable to haul in pots.
The experience I am attempting to record today is as slippery as its subject matter. I’d surprised myself by taking joy in the octopus’ escape. After all, he had been robbing us of our catch, shamelessly moving down the string of pots that we had worked so hard to set, and had consumed the trapped crabs as if they belonged to him. He’d cost us money, and beat us at our own game of exploiting the food chain. As a final humiliation, he defied our methods of containing him. In this business, it’s bad form to allow the catch to sneak away in the night.
Of course, I’m still glad the octopus escaped, and the insulting way in which he did it only reinforces my flawed logic. With only a slight twinge of guilt, I can take the life and freedom of a faceless crab bent on pinching my finger off, but a clever animal with eight legs, in my mind, cries to be free. As humans, we identify with creatures who we consider to be like us, and there will always be an instinctual cringe at the sight of one of them behind bars – or in the petting zoo section of the aquarium.
If I were captain of this boat, I’m not sure if I would have kept that octopus or let him go. There are surely more ruthless types on other boats who would have simply killed the creature on the spot. Anything that eats crab is the enemy, charismatic or not.
There’s no more time to ponder the matter further. We’re approaching our first string of pots already. As the boat rises up on a large swell, I catch a glimpse of the first few sets of buoys, spaced 500 feet apart with expert precision. Dave’s voice on the loudspeaker warns us to get ready. I take up my position at the block and reach for the buoy stick, sending a silent warning of my own to the crabs waiting down there at the bottom of the ocean. If the octopus hasn’t gotten them yet, we will.


Tuula Rebhahn is an Oregon coast native and graduated from the University of Oregon in 2009. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys cooking, gardening, finding rocks and daydreaming.


One Comment to “The Crab Raider”

  1. Hey Tuula! I enjoyed reading your article! I would have felt the same way.
    Hugs, Sandra

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